This Week in Research: Love, Scientifically; Tiny Flying Robots

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“Love is not a psychiatric disorder, but people that are in love are kind of crazy,” says Dr. Sandra Langeslag, an expert in biological psychology at the University of Maryland. And while the creative among us rhapsodize about love in poems and paintings, more rational types, like Langeslag, prefer to look at love through MRIs and EEGs. “I want to understand how the brain works when humans are attracted to one another,” Langeslag says, presumably beyond vague formulations like “Oh, you just know.” Langeslag’s research tries to bridge the gap between research on emotion (which depends on present circumstances) and cognition (which depends on thought and experience). Langeslag and her colleague, Luiz Pessoa, don’t believe that the two brain processes are as separate as they’re often portrayed. Langeslag’s research has shown that the brains of people in love show a specific pattern of what she calls “motivated attention” when shown images of their beloved. In other words, normal human propensity for distraction (a TV show in the background? an attractive stranger walking by?) is minimized when a person is gazing at the one they love. Isn’t that sweet?

If you want to know what the U.S. Air Force is up to these days, forget about watching Top Gun. Instead, consider the butterfly. No, not because they’re pretty, but because they’re able to fly through complex environments despite obstacles, wind, and narrow spaces. To that end, the Air Force is funding research at Johns Hopkins to help develop insect-sized robots for reconnaissance, search-and-rescue, and environmental monitoring missions — all without risking human life. To help develop the robots’ maneuverability, Johns Hopkins undergrad (!) Tiras Lin is taking high-speed video of butterflies and other flying insects. Designing successful, agile micro aerial vehicles (MAVs) requires an intimate understanding of the mass distribution of insects’ flapping wings, and how their bodies shift and distort as a response to the requirements of flight. So far, Lin and his fellow researchers have collected approximately 6,000 images — and used 600 frames to capture as little as one-fifth of one second of flight. “Butterflies flap their wings about 25 times per second,” Lin points out. “That’s why we had to take so many pictures.”



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